Undefeated light heavyweight Leo Leite walks into the Bellator cage for the first time Friday night in Pennsylvania, taking on former champion Phil Davis, but signing with Bellator wasn’t Leite’s goal in MMA until recently.
A member of the Brazilian Olympic judo team in 2008 and 2012, Leite was close to signing with the UFC over the past few years, being offered short-notice fights in Brazil to replace injured opponents, including stepping in for Anderson Silva against Uriah Hall at UFC 198, but the opportunity to make his Octagon debut never came to fruition.
“Three guys turned down fights with me on short notice in the UFC,” Leite told MMA Fighting.
Being a UFC fighter was his goal, but not agreeing with what he considered unfair treatment from the UFC to his friend Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza made him change his mind.
“It’s been a while,” he said of when he stopped focusing the UFC. “Seeing what they did to guys like ‘Jacare’ and Demian (Maia), I said ‘this place is not for me.’ That’s when I started to want Bellator more, and I got this chance now.”
“I think (Bellator) is the promotion that’s growing more, the promotion that respects the athletes, the Brazilians,” he continued. “There’s meritocracy there. If you win, you move forward. If you have to fight for the belt, you will. They care more about fighters than the UFC.
“I’m in the promotion I wanted to be, the promotion I asked my manager to get me into. I said ‘I want Bellator, I don’t want anything else.’”
Davis is coming back to action after suffering his first defeat under the Bellator banner, losing his 205-pound title to Ryan Bader in June, and Leite sees that as a perfect opportunity to earn a shot at the belt with a win at Bellator 186.
“I like the way they see me right away in the company, in a higher level. I think that’s deserved after all I did out there,” Leite said. “It’s my time. Beating him, a former light heavyweight champion, I move a big step forward in Bellator, and maybe I can already aim at the belt in my second or third fight. Winning the fight, and winning it well, the idea is to call out the winner of Bader against (Linton) Vassell.”
Leite has to win first, though, and sees this matchup as a classic clash of grapplers.
“He’s a wrestler and I’m a judoka, but I think my judo is in a higher level than his wrestling, and my jiu-jitsu is also higher than his,” he said. “I honestly don’t know what his strategy will be, if he will try to take me down or keep it standing. He will probably keep it standing, and I will do my game and try to take him down with my judo takedowns, which still is something a bit new in MMA. If I don’t take him down, we’re going for it standing. I’m ready for everything.”
Despite approaching the age of 40, Leite doesn’t think he’s anywhere near the end of his career, and he has bold goals for his run inside the Bellator cage.
A former two-division champion in Legacy FC, the Brazilian judoka aims to repeat history in Bellator.
“If I have the chance… It all depends on how this first fight goes,” said Leite, who weighs around 220 pounds between camps. “Getting a good win Friday, I’ll continue in this division, especially because it’s an easier weight cut for me. I want to fight for the light heavyweight belt.
“Winning it, I want to go down and fight for the middleweight title too, like I did at Legacy. I told them that already. I’m here to make some noise, I’m not here to play around.”